INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY
Spin yarns of success
Kalahandi in Orissa is known as the land of drought and starvation deaths. But the tribal women have literally spun their way out of abject poverty. BIBHUTI MISHRA examines the birth of Nuakala.
LIFE seemed to be an unending nightmare for most tribals in Kalahandi and the adjoining district of Nuapada (Orissa). Many left in search of greener pastures but ended up as bonded labour elsewhere. The women and children they left behind eked out a miserable existence, till "Nuakala" came to the rescue of the tribal women.
"Nuakala" fabric took its name from the initial letters of both the districts Nuapada and Kalahandi; the name also means "new craft".
With an ailing husband and aging in-laws, Chhamani Majhi seemed to be heading for starvation death, the inevitable destiny of most women in Kalahandi. But "Nuakala" happened. She was employed for spinning. In the first month, she earned Rs.800. She bought baby food for her daughter, a lantern to light her hut and clothes for her husband and in-laws. Life had taken a new dimension; living seemed meaningful.
Kunti Majhi would have left Kalahandi in search of work and perhaps ended up as a bonded labour somewhere. Then "Nuakala" came to her village and she was "employed" to weave handloom fabric. Living in her village, she earns more than Rs.750 per month and is able to provide two square meals a day to her family.
Rukmini Majhi's family life is more balanced today. Her husband is off country liquor and her children get food and education. She is a supervisor at a "Nuakala" spinning centre in her village.
These women from the Gond tribe in Kalahandi have left poverty and privation behind. This was possible because of the handmade cotton fabric and "Nuakala" garments, thanks to Kalahandi Vikash Parishad. KVP was working among the tribals of Kalahandi and Nuapada in areas like watershed management, relief work and sustainable employment generation programme.
But one man's foresight brought in new horizons. Amitav Banerjee, a marine engineer, had worked with MNCs and had been the Chief Executive Officer in pharmaceutical and software companies. He resigned his cushy job in 2002 to pursue his goals in Kalahandi.
Banerjee, brother-in-law of the late Gandhian Manmohan Chowdhury, says, "The first time I went to Kalahandi in 1996, I was appalled by the acute poverty there. The idea of poverty alleviation through sustainable employment generation haunted me. There was substantial area of Black cotton soil, suitable for cotton cultivation for which the water requirement is almost 20 times less compared to paddy. So I thought crop failure and resultant poverty could be avoided if cotton cultivation could be promoted among small and marginal land holding farmers. Then women could be engaged in spinning activities, followed by processing and weaving fabric of different design, shades and utility."
Banerjee got to work with social activist Rabi Das of KVP. Six villages were adopted and continuous spinning, processing and weaving work was entrusted to tribal women. Men are engaged only in dyeing and bleaching. Das, who has been working in Kalahandi for two decades, says, "It has made a tremendous difference to family life, with women becoming the bread-earners."
This module is not only environment-friendly; it's also worker friendly. Women follow a flexible timing. "We could not have done the job had there been strict timing because we have family responsibilities too. We come in the morning, then go back, do our chores, come back to the centre in the afternoon and work till nightfall. If we work for six hours we are able to earn Rs.25-30 per day," says Chhabina Majhi of Bilenjar village where there is a central weaving centre. There are 30 looms in villages like Sunbaheli, Chatta, Jampada, Malpada, Malikimunda and Bilenjar and more than 100 tribal women have been earning their living.
Banerjee is very happy with this women empowerment. "I am very impressed with their work culture. They can change the face of Kalahandi if provided the right opportunity." In fact, the basic approach of "self-help through community participation" has also caught on. Tribal women of Malpada village offered free labour to set up a work centre in less than two months on land donated by local tribals. Now 12 women work at the centre and support their families.
A sliver plant could ensure massive expansion of this project and bring down the rate of raw materials, thus generating more income for the tribal women who could also be engaged in larger numbers. But the plant costs more than Rs. 80,00,000 and a project has been lying with the Planning Commission without any takers.
But people involved are undeterred and bent on taking it forward. "Nuakala" garments and cotton fabrics have found champions in many city-bred women who have come forward to promote women empowerment through self-employment. Doctors, professors and high profile activists are endorsing the cause of "Nuakala" at exhibitions held in cities like New Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Bhubaneswar.
The garments are made keeping in mind the latest trends and fashions and the objective is to reach out to all sections through exhibitions, retail counters and fashion shows in big cities and metros. The brand name "Nuakala" is sought to be made popular. Designers are roped in and there is a constant attempt at improving the look and design, with focus on women's clothing.
KVP is determined to repeat the success story all over Kalahandi and Nuapada across hundreds of villages despite funds constraints; because "Nuakala" is a cause that goes much beyond women empowerment. It is, in fact, empowerment of Kalahandi that is in the news now for the right reasons.
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